Sesame Street, teaching me about me/us about digital storytelling

After watching most of it a couple months ago, I finished watching disc one of Sesame Street’s 40 Years of Sunny Days DVD set last weekend.

Disc one had the first 20 seasons (1969-1988ish), and I loved it. Great picks ran all the way through: first scenes, Rubber Duckie, I Love Trash, John-John counting, the grocery run, Sesame Street News Flash, Super Grover, the pinball animation, Monsterpiece Theater, Mr. James Taylor, Teeny Little Super Guy, the Smokey Robinson segment that scared me, Mr. Hooper’s death, the celeb Put Down the Duckie, and so much more.

(Note: Decades later, even YouTube’d, the Hooper scene gets to you.)

Had zero desire to watch disc two — after my time with the show. But then I watched the bonus features for disc one and had to put two in. Both had old behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the early principals. I watched these features for an hour and could’ve spent the rest of the day had more been available. I found myself taken aback.

The show had been a big part of my childhood and held a special place in my heart. But between the selected material from the show and the bonus exploration of the work behind it, I was stunned at how deeply the show had influenced my creative and narrative beliefs years later.

I can hardly begin to explain it. The randomness, the references, the counterplays, the need for enveloping experience, the play with the minimal and the overwhelming, the music in the daily, the physicality, the envions of possibility. The show had thoroughly affected my life.

Rather than try and explain more here (and fail), I want to share two snippets from the interviews. Both appear to come from the early ’80s. The first plays out a ton for me and probably at least some for you. The second is wonderfully mind-blowing as it relates to digital storytelling.

First: Jon Stone, former director and executive producer, on the show’s breakthroughs. He talks about how the initial cast was two white and two black actors, and then he moves onto the show’s setting:

The second thing was the departure from the traditional children’s show setting. Every children’s show, really ever, always was a cute little treehouse or a club in a backyard or Captain Kangaroo’s treasure house. It was always something fairyland and fanciful and wonderful.

We had struggled with the idea of the setting, the home base for this for a long time, and when it came into focus for me, I see a commercial for the Urban Coalition. I believe it was Urban Coalition, about “Send your kid to a ghetto” this summer. And it was shot on location in Harlem out on the sidewalk on the front stoops of the brownstowns, and as soon as I saw it, I knew exactly where we ought to be on this.

Because to the three-year-old who’s cooped up in the room upstairs, the action is on the street. That’s where the big kids are, that’s where they’re playing, they’re jumping rope, they’re jumping up and down and that noise and everything else. And so I wanted was not just an exterior of a brownstone, you know, urban rundown neighborhood, but I wanted a totally realistic set. Not a television set, not canvas on flats that would blow when you turned the air-conditioning on and you’d see it was fake. This is a movie set. It might as well be shot on location. It is so solid.

In fact, when we first did the brownstone, we built the front steps out of wood because it was cheaper and the normal way to do it. And when people ran up and down, you’d hear their heels hitting the wood, and you’d say, “That doesn’t sound right.” And we had the steps cast in concrete — the stagehands love us for it each time they have to load ’em in and out — and they’re heavy as can be, but the sound is right.

It’s a real street and a real building. And to the millions of children who watch, it’s a real neighborhood. When they come to visit the studio, they can’t believe Sesame Street is inside another building.

I even had fun transcribing these snippets. Second: Jim Henson.

You see puppetry is a very limited form. There’s so many things that you cannot do, and so it’s sort of like a game that you’re playing with the audience because there’s only certain kinds of things that we can do well with the puppets. You know, we basically don’t see them below the waist, and also there’s this very large puppeteer that’s sort of right there beneath the puppet.

And so what we try to do is we try to shoot them in such a way that it feels like they’re able to everything that people do, and that they’re moving around in a set in the same way that people do. But it’s kind of a game, you know, where we only have a very… a limited range of things that we can do, and we try to fake the rest. And to the audience feeling that these things are totally dimensional.

But when I started, when I began on television, I began working with a television monitor, and I’m sure I wasn’t the first person to do that. Bill Baird and Bert Tullstrum [sp?] were both working on television before I was. But using the television monitor, we the performer take our whole performance from the monitor. And so this is kind of a unique thing in that you can perform and see your performance exactly as the audience does. This is unique in the performance field. I mean, no other actor can ever see their performance at the same time they’re doing it. And so as we’re performing, we’re also editing it. We’re kind of editing ourselves, we’re framing the shots.

So, these are the kinds of techniques that we had developed before we came to Seseame Street.

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